Today’s Asean-India Summit is an opportunity to engage with a grouping that needs more attention from New Delhi

The recently redesigned website of India’s External Affairs Ministry ( has a link right on top of its home page, just below the photograph of the new Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, to “India and Neighbours”. Sadly, the ‘neighbours’ listed are only her so-called ‘South Asian’ neighbours, the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent.

One cannot blame just those who have constructed this website for this myopic view of what constitutes India’s neighbourhood. The occupants of New Delhi’s Raisina Hill have for long seen only the Himalayas, the deserts and the Gangetic plains around them. When one thinks of the ocean as a barrier rather than a bridge one cannot come around to thinking of countries on the other side of the waters as ‘neighbours’.

But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has never been a victim of this common Delhi affliction. Why, only earlier this year he told the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations, Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, that India and Thailand are “maritime neighbours”. That is a message that Dr. Singh has proudly carried in recent years to Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

However, in repeating that message to his hosts at the Asean-India Summit on Monday Dr. Singh must remember that India’s eastern maritime neighbours expect a little more attention than they are getting. Over the past couple of years I have heard South-East Asian members of the Asean-India Eminent Persons Group (AIEPG) lament the slow pace and the low profile of India’s engagement of the region. Sensitivity on this score has reached a new height as many Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) members have become wary of China’s assertiveness in the region.

Lend a helping hand

Meeting in Phnom Penh over the weekend, Asean leaders are unlikely to forget what happened at their Foreign Ministers’ meeting this July when disagreement on how to refer to the South China Sea dispute involving China and Asean members resulted in the meeting ending, for the first time ever, without a joint communiqué. Caught between China-U.S. and China-Japan rivalry in the region, Asean is gasping for life. This gives India an opportunity to be the good neighbour, stepping in to boost Asean’s confidence and relevance to Asia.

No one can do this with greater conviction than Prime Minister Singh. Taking forward former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s “Look East Policy”, Dr. Singh has done more to cement India’s relations with South-East Asia, for a long time referred to as “Indo-China”, than any other Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru.

Analysts of Dr. Singh’s foreign policy initiatives tend to focus mainly on his initiatives with the United States and Pakistan. In both cases, it can be said, he was picking up the threads from where his immediate predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had left the relationship. Indeed, on the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement he even told Mr. Vajpayee, “I have completed what you began”.

PM’s personal interest

If there is one relationship that Dr. Singh has pursued with great personal interest, it has been the relationship with Asean nations. The first time a difference of opinion between Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Singh came out into the open was when a party functionary, now a Cabinet Minister, leaked a letter that Ms Gandhi had written to Dr. Singh expressing concern about the provisions of the free trade agreement (FTA) India was then negotiating with Asean. Her concern was that the FTA may hurt some Indian interests.

Assuaging her concerns and making his reply also public, Dr. Singh said: “Our approach to regional trade agreements, in general, and FTAs, in particular, has been evolved after careful consideration of our geopolitical as well as economic interests.” By drawing attention to geopolitical considerations in defending the Asean-India FTA, Dr. Singh was providing a wider context to a purely trade agreement. It is this approach that both Asean and India have since adopted in defining the scope of the relationship.

A few weeks after Ms Gandhi’s letter to the Prime Minister, the then Chief Minister of Kerala, V.S. Achutanandan, led a delegation comprising his bright and articulate Finance Minister Thomas Isaac and the sagacious Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board Prabhat Patnaik to lodge a complaint against the provisions of the Asean-India FTA that they alleged would hurt Kerala’s farmers. An unflustered Dr. Singh replied in his characteristic soft voice, “But, comrade, I am told the beneficiaries would be poor farmers from the fraternal socialist republic of Vietnam!” Everyone broke into laughter, enjoying the Prime Minister’s understated rebuff.

After the resistance from farm interests came the resistance from industry. The then Union Minister for Commerce and Industries, Kamal Nath, succeeded in delaying negotiations on the FTA in goods, pandering to domestic business lobbies. When Dr. Singh returned to office in May 2009 he handed the Ministry over to Anand Sharma with the explicit instruction that the signing of the Asean-India FTA in goods should be his first task. Mr. Sharma’s first foreign visit was to Singapore in June 2009 and the FTA was signed in August.

The third decisive intervention of Dr. Singh that has shaped the Asean-India relationship was his categorical statement at the Asean-India Summit in October 2009: “India’s engagement with the Asean is at the heart of our ‘Look East’ Policy.” This was a reassurance that Asean members were seeking at a time when they felt India may pay greater attention to its bilateral relations with Asia’s major powers, China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia, at the cost of Asean as a group.

Perceptions and visions

In travelling to Phnom Penh, Dr. Singh has once again put his weight behind an early conclusion of the Asean-India FTA in services. He is seeking a wider, comprehensive economic cooperation agreement. Despite all this effort, there is still a perception in South-East Asia that India is not as actively engaged with the region as it ought to be.

On the other hand, some in India believe that Asean has been unable to function in a cohesive manner, has become internally far too divided and, therefore, is unable to deliver on its commitments.

This week’s summit will be followed up by next month’s Asean-India Commemorative Summit, marking two decades of dialogue partnership between Asean and India. A vision statement for future cooperation and economic integration contained in the report of the AIEPG will be made public and a road map for the creation of an Asian Economic Community is expected to be unveiled.

Whatever the hurdles and the gaps in communication, India has to pay greater attention to its relations with her maritime neighbours. A first step would be to recognise the fact that they are, indeed, our neighbours — not just geographically but also civilisationally! Neighbours are defined purely by geography, but a neighbourhood is defined by economic, social, cultural and political factors. A community is born of an interactive neighbourhood. Any which way, Asean and India are neighbours, as indeed are India and the Gulf. Time for MEA to update its website!

(Sanjaya Baru is a member of the Asean-India Eminent Persons Group and Hon. Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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